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U.S. Appeals Court Upholds, Rejects Parts Of State Campaign Law

Big Decision In An Election Year

Edmund Mahony

July 14, 2010

A federal appeals court became a factor in one of the most competitive state election seasons in years Tuesday when it upheld a key public finance provision in the state's landmark campaign finance reform law.

The decision by the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals would allow candidates for state offices — from state representative to governor — to qualify for public campaign funds from the state under a law designed to lessen the potentially corruptive influence of special interest money on the political process.

But the appellate judges struck down other provisions of the sweeping campaign finance reform law. Among other things, they said that "trigger provisions," — which would release supplemental money to keep publicly financed candidates competitive with wealthy, privately financed candidates — were unconstitutional. And they struck down a ban against campaign contributions by lobbyists for the same reason.

Reaction by candidates, lawmakers and public officials with a stake in campaign reform was mixed. But by Tueday night, calls for the legislature to reclaim control of the campaign finance reform program from the courts was dominating the discussion. The Senate's Democratic leaders called for a special legislative session within weeks to restore parts of the law that have been judged unconstitutional, even with primary elections less than a month away.

"Today's 2nd Circuit Court ruling confounded those who presumed to know what the court would do and what changes needed to be made in our clean elections laws," Senate President Donald E. Williams Jr. of Brooklyn and Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney of New Haven said in a joint statement. "The ruling upholds some of the basic principles that form the basis of the state's landmark law. Unfortunately, it also reverses key parts of the campaign finance reform law designed to eliminate the influence of special interests.

"In the next few days we will be reaching out to caucus members, discussing our policy options with our colleagues in the General Assembly, and working with Gov. Rell to determine the next steps, which include setting a date for a special session within 30 days. We are committed to addressing the court's concerns and maintaining Connecticut's Clean Elections system. "

The appellate decision grew out of U.S. District Judge Stefan R. Underhill's ruling in September that invalidated as unconstitutional a central public financing provision of what is known as Connecticut's Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2005. The appeals court Tuesday returned the case to Underhill in Brideport with instructions to attempt to fashion what remains of the law into a workable campaign reform system.

The rulings, contained in two separate decisions, were written by Circuit Court Judge Jose A. Cabranes. Specicially, the appeals court:

—Reversed Underhill and upheld a provision of the law that distributes campaign money to candidates participating in the public financing program. Underhill had concluded that the criteria used to qualify participating candidates and to distribute public funds put minor political parties at an unfair disadvantage compared to better-heeled, major parties.

— Struck down "trigger provisions" of the law that would release supplemental campaign grants to publicly financed candidates who are outspent by privately financed candidates or who are targets of attack ads by advocacy groups. The appeals judges said the supplemental campaign grants impose "a substantial burden on the exercise of the First Amendment" rights of advocacy groups and of candidates who choose to privately or self-finance their campaigns.

—Struck down language in the state law that bans lobbyists from contributing to candidates or soliciting contributions on behalf of candidates. The appeals court said an outright ban on lobbyist donations is a violation of their free speech guarantee and that the legislature should have considered a less restrictive way to limit lobbyist money.

—Upheld the portion of the state law that bans state contractors, potential state contractors and members of their families from contributing to political campaigns. The appeals court said that "in light of Connecticut's recent experience with corruption scandals involving state contractors" the imposition of a ban "is closely drawn to the state's interest in combating the appearance of corruption."

The campaign finance reform law was challenged by minor party political candidates in 2006, less than a year after it was enacted by a special session of the General Assembly. When Underhill ruled, he prohibited the state from enforcing the law, but later postponed that prohibition pending the appeal.

On Tuesday, the appeals court vacated Underhill's prohibition against enforcement and returned the case for further argument on questions concerning the trigger provisions and contributions by lobbyists and contractors. It was unclear which parts of the law were enforceable Tuesday.

"Recognizing that an election has been scheduled for Nov. 2, 2010, and given the importance of this case to ongoing campaigns for state office, we request that the District Court act expeditiously in considering the issues presented for decision on remand," the appeals court said in its opinion.

Among the questions Underhill will have to resolve is whether the removal of parts of the law that have been judged unconstitutional would invalidate the entire legislative package. Parties to the suit are divided on the question.

State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said Tuesday that Underhill must decide "whether provisions struck down today render the entire public financing law unconstitutional."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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